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Moscow Soloists & Yuri Bashmet - Stravinsky & Prokofiev

This is a highly successful follow-up to the Moscow Soloists' debut recording on Onyx of Shostakovich, Sviridov and Vainberg that I welcomed wholeheartedly just over a year ago. This time, the focus is on neo-Classical Stravinsky and early Prokofiev.
Stravinsky's ballet Apollo is the test of any string orchestra, as it has to encompass quite a range of textural variation, rhythmic acuteness and Apollonian serenity.
Bashmet's players triumph on all accounts: just listen to the wit they bring to the "Variation de Polymnie" or the gravity with which they inject the final apotheosis. The Concerto in D is just as enjoyable, with rhythms again vividly pointed and the sly ninths of the slow movement winningly phrased.
The Prokofiev is a string-orchestra arrangement of his 20 Visions fugitives for piano, the 15 made by Rudolf Barshai in the early 1960s supplemented by the remaining five in new versions by Roman Balashov. Again the musicians respond well to the terse, quick-change moods of these miniatures with playing of exceptional virtuosity and sense of ensemble. 
David Nice
Prokofiev liked to point out that he had pipped Stravinsky to the neoclassical classical post by several years; and in terms of purified melody some of the Visions fugitives of 1915-17 seem to anticipate Stravinsky’s Apollo by more than a decade – at least in the string arrangements of the piano original on parade here. Rudolf Barshai transcribed 15 of the 20 miniatures, so Roman Balashov, viola-player in the Moscow Soloists, has arranged the remaining five, without any perceptible stylistic hiatus. The ‘rainbow colours’ hinted at in Prokofiev’s inspiration, lines by the poet Konstantin Balmont, are fully captured in this chameleonic performance, from ethereal harmonics to the two unquiet numbers (15 and 19) which sound like extra numbers from Bernard Herrmann’s score for Hitchcock’s Psycho (not inappropriate: Herrmann was indebted to Prokofiev).
There are mysteries and passing hints of the numinous in this Apollo, too. Best are the most refined moments: the Pas de deux shares with the Arioso of the Concerto in D a beauty that always remains elusive. Bashmet is not afraid to introduce hesitations and flexibilities which might fox dancers of Balanchine’s glorious choreography, but which certainly work in concert. Singing lines always remain in perfect balance with rhythmic definition, especially impressive as the staccato semiquavers of the Concerto’s concluding Rondo cautiously admit fragments of melody. Some may prefer the opulence of Karajan’s full orchestral strings in the ballet (DG), but the lean Apollonian nimbleness of this Moscow ensemble, cleanly recorded, is surely a more authentic realisation.
These performances are outstanding. In Apollo, Yuri Bashmet and Co. manage to put more meat on the bones of this music than you might ever dream possible, without ever compromising its elegant, restrained, neoclassical aesthetic. The key to their success is a wide dynamic range and rich string sonority allied to the necessary rhythmic acuity. Listen to how they dig into the "big tune" at the climax of The Birth of Apollo, or notice the wonderfully fleet and punchy rhythms in the penultimate scene when Apollo dances with all of the muses. The final apotheosis is also just that: haunting but never dragging, and perfectly satisfying in its feeling of finality. This is the kind of performance that may win a few converts to the cause.
Remarkably, the same observations apply to the performance of the Concerto in D, one of Stravinsky's most arid and cerebral creations. Again, it's the treatment of rhythm that does the trick: the music in the outer movements trips along with an unusually purposeful and (yes) charming demeanor, and never comes to sound like empty note-spinning. It's a performance that, incidentally, really does vindicate Stravinsky's view that his music needs to be played strictly by the score. This doesn't mean coldly or inexpressively, but the fact is that if the interpreters really apply themselves meticulously (as here) to realizing what he wrote before adding their own "ideas", they will likely enjoy much greater success.
Rudolf Barshai arranged some 13 of Prokofiev's Visions fugitives for string orchestra, and Bashmet supplements the previous effort with the remaining seven numbers in transcriptions by Roman Balashov. If I find these brief, quirky pieces more effective in their original keyboard guises, it's not to disparage the excellence of the playing or the aptness of the conducting. The whole set of 20 makes a fine bonus, and of course juxtaposing Stravinsky and Prokofiev in this way is interesting in and of itself. The sonics are perfect: ideally warm and natural. You should find yourself returning to this exceptional disc often.
"Oooh, Professor Snape’s made an album" said my girlfriend, spotting this CD on top of another excitingly wobbly heap sent by our heroic editor. The Alan Rickman/Yuri Bashmet look-alike debate can continue elsewhere, but with darkly soulful portraits being the trend in several releases in the current catalogue I sometimes wonder where it will all end. There’s a new Haitink - Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony with the LSO - out there which just looks like the music has given someone a headache – not necessarily a guarantee of hit sales. This new CD from the distinguished and ever elegant-sounding Moscow Soloists is actually quite a tasteful affair, with a nice blue lining and picture disc.

Bashmet and his players know the secret of good string chamber orchestral playing. Aside from the necessity for impeccable tuning, articulation and phrasing, the only real danger is an overall ‘beige’ result from a lack in dynamic contrast. Take any moment from Apollo, and you’ll find you ears constantly being teased from piapianissimo to mezzo-forte/forte, the genuine loud moments always roomy and unforced, but reaching up from a floor of genuine softness, so that the contrast and shape is ever present. Apollo is of course ‘Apollon musagète’ under a different name, revised subtly by the composer to make the work more of a concert piece, but altering it little from its ballet origins. Making a comparison with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Stockholm Chamber Orchestra (Sony SK 46 667) Bashmet has a lighter touch and a more transparent sound, and with only seventeen players you might expect this. Both conductors appreciate the abstract nature of the works neo-classicism, but Bashmet is more playful, urging the faster variations forward and making the drama fleeting and elusive, giving the slower variations more rubato and infusing them with added value, not in terms of extra weight, but certainly in the way the music is narrated, drawing the listener along through rides both rugged and gentle. The vital Apothéose deserves a mention. No doubt it has something to do with Russian ‘soul’, but Bashmet wrings out more emotion than most in this movement, and the four minutes of its duration are filled with echoes explicit, elusive and ethereal.

The Concerto in D came about as a commission from Paul Sacher, and Stravinsky’s idea was to create a work on the scale of one of Bach’s Brandenberg concertos. Once again, the Moscow Soloists fill the work with contrast. Rhythmic energy is a strong feature here, alongside beautiful lines and some string colours which make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Salonen is good too, but there is something in his approach which makes you realise he is a composer rather than a player. Bashmet is sometimes a little less explicit with harmonic or contrapuntal detail, but the impact of the playing creates a great deal more intensity and excitement. The opening of the second movement is a joy. Bashmet takes nothing for granted, but keeps us in an agony of anticipation as nothing and everything happens at the same time. This is one of those ‘you have to hear this’ recordings, and you can have fun watching your friends gradually falling off the edge of their chair by the end, after the nothing which has happened, happens.

The USP of this disc is of course the version for string orchestra of Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives, which cover the youthful composer’s attachment to Scriabin, right up to the turbulent influence of the February revolution in 1917. I know the piano versions of these pieces fairly well, and found the sound world created by the string orchestra arrangements to be a little disorientating at first. Once you can accept these arrangements as pieces in their own right, rather than trying to find the recognisable ‘hooks’ which sound most like the familiar piano renditions, then things begin falling into place, and I soon gave up trying to put one up against another. I admire the way in which both Barshai and Roman Balashov, whose completion of the full set of twenty pieces is recorded here for the first time, avoid a slavish recreation of pianism. Rudolf Barshai made an arrangement of fifteen of the Visions Fugitives in 1962 for his own Moscow Chamber Orchestra, and Balashov, assistant Professor at the Moscow Conservatoire and himself a viola player with the Moscow Soloists, completed the set for this recording. Plenty of specialist string effects create a feeling of varied character in the movements, with pizzicato, col legno, harmonics and flautando moments making for fascinating listening, as well as the variations in perspective created by solo parts against accompaniment, and lines taken by entire sections. Everyone will have their own favourites, but I particularly liked the smoky mysticism in XII Assai moderato, the inevitable Shostakovich comparisons in nervy movements such as XIV Feroce, and the intense dissonant opening of XVI Dolente, against its salon second section and ultimate return in a lonely tremulando.

The overall impression left over from this disc is one of poise and restraint, everything gorgeously under control, but at the same time with a sense of real music making – not overly sanitised, and certainly with plenty of character and depth. The recording is set in a pleasantly resonant acoustic, but still with plenty of detail. The playing is genuinely brilliant and sensitively lead in Yuri Bashmet’s interpretations. Bashmet of course has string technique as part of his DNA, but proves once again that there is plenty more to say through the medium of the small string orchestra.
Dominy Clements

With this CD, the musicianship of the Moscow Soloists provides one of the aural treats of the year. The vast set of miniature variations – Prokofiev's 20 Visions fugitives op.22 – especially receives playing of the highest refinement.
With all those tiny sections – some lasting under 30 seconds – the composition can seem sporadic, yet not here under the leadership of Yuri Bashmet. The precise, sparse yet unusually warm textures of the string band are shaped and coloured, with individual movements relaxing into more expanded musical nuggets.
The Lentamente introduces a distant, shivering tone; the Andante that follows finds a contrast of timbre – here it is grainier, earthier and more arrogantly virtuosic. Such juxtapositions serve to provide great musical excitement throughout. Bashmet finds irony in the titling of movement VI con eleganza – the chromatics and (here) lurching accompaniments seem anything but stately – while the Commodo is quite breathtakingly sustained in its sighing lament.
What serves to distinguish this performance, however, is the inclusion of five new transcriptions. Rudolf Barshai made his 15 arrangements from the original version for piano in 1962, and violist Roman Balashov has completed the set for this recording. There is no perceptible incongruity of styles, and the new transcriptions are written with immense intelligence and taste. VII (the Pittoresco) boasts the most delicate scoring, while the breathless motifs of XVII (Poetico, andantino) are evocative and magical. Only a slight insecurity of pitching on the work's final diminuendo threatens to mar the performance.
Stravinsky's two offerings – Apollo and the Concerto in D for Strings – are equally persuasive. The latter is a brief work, but one incorporating a little too much angularity of line and dangerous harmony for the comfort of most string bands. Here, the Arioso in particular is stunning – the steamy bass notes, sultry tone of the higher strings and languorous rhythms create an unusual air of Mediterranean warmth – while the crags and choppy beats of the outer movements find pinpoint security and conversational intimacy between parts.
Apollo, meanwhile, is given a performance of the highest clarity. A certain chilly introspection occasionally lurks too close to the surface – as it can do with this defining work of Neo-classicism – but great humour is found throughout, and the Apothéose ends the performance with ample helpings of both lustrous glitter and overwhelming ecstasy. Forget the odd technical slip: the overall recording remains a pleasure from start to finish.

Given the ubiquity of Rudolf Barshai’s Shostakovich string quartet adaptations, it’s something of a puzzle that there haven’t been more recordings of his remarkable take on Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives. Now that Yuri Bashmet has asked Roman Balashov to transcribe the five piano pieces that Barshai himself omitted, could it be that the set will take off as it deserves?
The polystylistic Visions fugitives have always responded well to a variety of approaches. Pianists such as Emil Gilels tended to “firm them up”, imparting an elegant solidity to the invention which you won’t find here. The playing of the Moscow Soloists is nothing if not finely chiselled but Bashmet encourages a degree of planned instability and expressive distortion, pointing up the fleeting, transient nature of the music. While some may question why an exquisite melodic inspiration like the “Commodo” (tr 21) should not be left to speak for itself, the results here are sensationally beautiful in their own way. The version by the latter-day Moscow Chamber Orchestra under Constantine Orbelian (Chandos, 11/98) is comprehensively outclassed.
Bashmet’s micro-management of nuance, vibrato and bowing technique suits Stravinsky rather less well and I can imagine some listeners rejecting this Apollo out of hand. We can be sure that a composer who went so far as to portray his music as “essentially powerless to express anything at all” and campaigned to deny his champions the possibility of “interpretation” would have found it impossibly mannered. But perhaps the notes on the page have a right to their own story.
The recording is vivid and lifelike, capturing some extraneous breathing from an extraordinarily accomplished if small-scale ensemble. Over to you.